From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
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For a self-described Christian conservative, this 32-year-old doesn’t blame Obama one bit. Instead, he sees his own remarkable life story as the result of many “thumbs on the scales” that are intended to help poor people. People who blame Obama or Bush (or the Chinese or Monsanto or Muslims) for their problems are setting themselves up to fail. Ultimately, like Obama (who also had the audacity to publish a memoir when he was only 32), it was his sometimes violent, always foul-mouthed grandparents who gave him the chance for success when his own parents deserted him. I will be very surprised if he doesn’t run for office in Ohio, because if I wanted to create the perfect post-Trump candidate for the republican party, it would be this guy.
I am from Kentucky and called my grandmother "Mammaw," and I shared family tragedies similar to the author: my father was an alcholic who grew up in an orphanage; my Mother never graduated HS and struggled to support us. I can still see her weaping while washing dishes as she could never meet our bills. Somehow I got into a Community College, got good degrees in Math and Business and never looked back; however, I see my nascent beginning borne of love from family and a faith in God passed down through my culture. I will cling to them both forever. So this wonderful author wrote my story as well. There is hope in this beautiful book; there is sadness; and there is a sober, unflinching look at a tragedy the country will have to face. I have no answers, but I know everyone could use a "Mammaw." Now, semi-retired, I teach Adult Ed to those same humble people of every race, region, and religion I am still from. I cried and laughed thoughout - this is well worth it.
An apolitical narrative
In 2017, where tribalism is the new politics, facts are negotiable and intolerance has become our national pastime, JD Vance's book is a breath of fresh air. We need more stories like this that allow us to examine sociocultural and economic patterns through the experiences of real people, not the packaged rhetoric of political campaign managers or the aloof superiority of academics. I'm a MC African American died-in-the-wool northeast corridor liberal, and the tribulations and traditions of the Vance family -- who on the surface have very little in common with me -- evoked in me everything from empathy to understanding to affinity. Sharing our own stories, our own family narratives, shows us that we're more alike than we are different, that for most of us, life is about far more than a contest of identity politics.
For conservatives looking for a book that blames liberals, multiculturalism and immigration for all of rural white America's problems, this isn't it. For liberals looking for a book that blames conservative policies, corporate greed and racist apathy for all of rural white America's problems, this isn't it either.
It's the story of one family, trying to love and support each other the best they could, and to survive and thrive with the cards they were dealt.